Count Basie family papers and artifacts
- circa 1870s-1989
Scope and Contents
The Count Basie family papers and artifacts comprise the extant papers and personal belongings of the Basie family, including Catherine, Diane, and Count Basie. The collection contains personal papers, music, photographic prints and negatives, business records, artwork, and audio and moving image recordings, as well as artifacts. The majority of items in the collection are from the 20th century, particularly the time period between the mid-1950s to the early 1980s.
Most significantly, the collection documents the full extent of Count Basie’s career in jazz, ranging from his time in Kansas City to the end of his life. Materials dating from the earliest years of his career are primarily included in series 5, 6, and 8. Materials in series 1, 4, 7, and 9 better represent Count Basie’s life and career in the 1950s-1980s, especially the 1960s-1970s. Types of materials in these series include clippings about Count Basie and the Count Basie Orchestra, scrapbooks, photographic prints and negatives, audio and moving image recordings, ephemera and memorabilia, advertising materials, notated music, contracts and business records connected to the Count Basie Orchestra, a limited amount of professional and personal correspondence, publications about Count Basie, his draft autobiography, and the numerous awards, citations, and honorary degrees he received as well as proclamations made in his honor.
Catherine Basie’s life and accomplishments are also well-documented in the collection, including her work with various civic and charitable organizations, her background as a dancer and singer, her social network, and the centrality of family in her home life. Series 2 and 4 provide rich information about her involvement in charitable and civic organizations in the form of correspondence and attachments, reports, newsletters, ephemera, and related publications, as well as the many honors and awards she received for her service. Photographs in series 8 provide a visual record of many of the events and figures found in series 2 and 4, and clippings in series 6 give additional context. Catherine's experiences and life prior to her marriage are most evident in series 5, 6, and 8 through clippings, ephemera, photographic prints and negatives, and correspondence, while the receipts, invoices, account statements, and related materials in series 9 provide information about her management of the family’s home life and budget, especially in the 1970s-1980s.
Although documentation of Diane Basie’s life is less prevalent in the collection overall, ample evidence of her day-to-day experiences and relationships with family members is apparent, particularly in series 4.1, 5, 7.9, and especially series 8.
Series 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 provide the richest documentation of the Basies’ family life, including the time they spent together as a family for holidays and birthdays, the management of their household and finances, and their relationships with each other as well as with extended family, including Count and Catherine Basie’s parents and relatives. The family’s collective experience is apparent throughout the collection, but the home movies and photographs in particular provide an intimate look at life in the Basie household as well as a visual record of extended family members and their lives.
For additional and more specific information, please refer to series-level scope and content notes.
51 Cubic Feet (105 boxes)
Conditions Governing Access
The collection is open for use unless otherwise indicated.
Language of Materials
Norwegian Nynorsk; Nynorsk, Norwegian
Biographical / Historical
William James "Count" Basie (1904 August 21 - 1984 April 26) was an African American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. He was married to Catherine Morgan Basie (1914 December 3 – 1983 April 11), an African American burlesque dancer and singer who later became a community organizer and activist. They had one daughter, Diane Lillian Basie (1944 February 6 – 2022 October 15), who was born with cerebral palsy and lived at home with her parents and caretakers until her death. The Basie family also included several unofficially adopted children: Aaron Woodward III, Rosemary (Holman) Matthews, Olivia (Hasell) Simmons, Pamela Jackson, and Lamont Gilmore.
Count Basie’s early years
Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey to Harvey Lee Basie and Lillian “Lilly Ann” Childs Basie. They had one other son, Leroy, who died in childhood. Count Basie’s first musical forays were as a drummer, but he learned to play piano by taking lessons from a local teacher. He left middle school and worked at the nearby movie theater, changing film reels and playing accompaniments for silent films. In 1924 he moved to New York City, where he met and was influenced by stride pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who helped Basie learn to play the organ, the instrument he preferred when playing at home for fun. Shortly after moving to New York, he obtained work as a vaudeville pianist and toured across the country. In 1928 he started performing with Walter Page’s Blue Devils, eventually landing in Kansas City, where in 1929 he began his association with Bennie Moten’s Orchestra. When Moten died in 1935, Basie formed his own nine-piece group, the Barons of Rhythm, featuring many of Moten’s personnel as well as members of the Blue Devils. He also started using the name “Count Basie.” By 1937, the Barons of Rhythm had grown to 13 members and relocated to New York City, where they made their first recordings as Count Basie and his Orchestra.
Catherine Basie’s early years
Catherine Morgan Basie was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Warren Morgan and Helen Cobb Morgan, and had one sister, Ruby, and two brothers, Leonard and Milton. Catherine graduated from Central High School, and soon thereafter was a contender for the 1936 Olympics as a champion backstroke swimmer. Not being able to afford the training, she instead focused on her career as a dancer, singer, and entertainer, performing with the Whitman Sisters vaudeville act, but soon she was on her own billing as Princess Aloha, appearing in film shorts and touring on the burlesque circuit.
Marriage and family
Catherine and Count Basie first met in 1931 when they were both performing in Philadelphia, but the two did not become romantically involved until Catherine’s five-year marriage to Jimmy Miller ended in 1940. Count Basie was also previously married, from 1930-1935, to Vivian Lee Winn. In his autobiography, Count Basie states the date and location of his and Catherine’s marriage as August 21, 1942 in Seattle, Washington, but contemporary published accounts claim the couple eloped in early 1943. According to the marriage license on file in the Kings County, Washington archives, the Basies were married July 13, 1950.1
In 1944, Catherine gave birth to their daughter, Diane Basie, in Cleveland, Ohio, where Catherine had gone to stay with her mother for the birth and Diane’s infancy. She was born with cerebral palsy, requiring daily full-time care and support for the duration of her life. When Catherine returned to New York City, the family moved to an apartment in Manhattan, and in 1946, they bought a home in Addisleigh Park in Saint Albans, Queens, New York, where they installed a swimming pool, the site of frequent neighborhood gatherings and charitable events. The Basies maintained the swimming pool for neighborhood use even after moving permanently to Freeport, Grand Bahama in 1973. Neighborhood friends included Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Lena Horne, Illinois Jacquet, and Milt and Mona Hinton.
Count Basie toured extensively with the Count Basie Orchestra, more than 300 nights each year, so he was not often home on a daily or even weekly basis. Although Catherine, and sometimes Diane, traveled with the Count Basie Orchestra regularly (particularly on overseas trips) Catherine used her time away from her husband to lead and participate in various social, charitable, and civic organizations and programs; manage the household and family’s budget; and care for Diane with support from family and caretakers, including nurse Dee Dee Williams, neighbor and unofficially adopted daughter Rosemary Matthews, and Catherine’s sister-in-law, Carrie Morgan.
Catherine Basie charitable and civic work
In addition to serving as president of the Rinkeydinks, a charitable organization whose membership consisted primarily of the wives of jazz musicians, Catherine held leadership positions in the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), New York Urban League, Lighthouse for the Blind, South Jamaica Community Council, and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, among others. She was a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and involved with local, regional, and national civic and charitable organizations. Some of her key interests were civil rights, mental and physical health, issues related to children and young people, and public education. She was appointed Community Mayor of Queens, and was the recipient of many honors, including the 1961 NCCJ Brotherhood Award and being named Woman of the Year in 1960 by the Zeta Phi Beta sorority as well as in 1962 by the Jewish War Veterans of the United States, Queens County Council Ladies Auxiliary.
Count Basie Orchestra
With the exception of several core musicians who stayed with the band for long stretches, the Count Basie Orchestra’s personnel changed regularly over the years, and musicians would often leave only to return later either as a guest soloist or sometimes again as a permanent member of the lineup. Between 1936 and 1938, Count Basie enlarged the group, adding Buck Clayton on trumpet, singers Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday, Earle Warren on alto saxophone, Bennie Morton and Dicky Wells on trombone, Helen Humes (replacing Holiday), and Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet. They joined band members Oran “Hot Lips” Page on trumpet, Herschel Evans and Lester Young on tenor saxophone, Eddie Durham on trombone and sometimes guitar (also an arranger for the band), Buster Smith on alto saxophone, and the “All American” rhythm section of Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums, and Freddie Green on guitar. (Green was in the Basie Orchestra for fifty years until his death in 1987, longer than any other band member.)
The band’s popularity grew exponentially during the late 1930s and early 1940s, starting with a string of hits for Decca Records, including “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “One O'Clock Jump.” “Lester Leaps In,” recorded for Vocalion, was another major hit for the band during this period. The group’s performances were regularly broadcast on radio networks across North America, and they recorded frequently, except during the 1942-1944 and 1948 musicians’ strikes by the American Federation of Musicians, which limited recording opportunities for all union members. By the end of the 1940s, big band jazz was declining in popularity and bookings were becoming more difficult to negotiate at the level the band required. In 1950 Count Basie decided to break up the group and instead led smaller combos of six to nine players for a brief stint.
In 1951 he re-formed the sixteen-piece big band, the group that would become his most successful and enduring, which continued to perform and record as “Count Basie and His Orchestra.” By mid-1952 the lineup of the newly-reconfigured ensemble had mostly stabilized and consisted of Paul Campbell, Wendell Culley, Joe Newman, and Reunald Jones on trumpet; Henry Coker, Benny Powell, and Jimmy Wilkins on trombone; Paul Quinichette and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor saxophone; Marshal Royal as deputy music director, alto saxophonist, and clarinetist; Ernie Wilkins on alto and tenor saxophone; Charlie Fowlkes on baritone saxophone; Gus Johnson on drums; Freddie Green on guitar; Jimmy Lewis on bass (soon to be replaced by Gene Ramey and then Eddie Jones, respectively); Bixie Crawford as frequent vocalist; and Count Basie as pianist and leader. Over the course of coming years, new Count Basie Orchestra personnel would include Thad Jones on trumpet (also an arranger for the band), Joe Wilder on trumpet, Sonny Payne on drums, Bill Hughes on trombone, Frank Foster on various reed instruments, and Frank Wess on tenor saxophone and flute (also an arranger for the band). The group toured internationally and made some of Basie’s most popular recordings, including “April in Paris,” “Shiny Stockings,” “L’il Darling,” and the single “Everyday I Have the Blues” (Basie’s biggest hit) with singer Joe Williams, who performed regularly with the band. Starting in the late 1950s, the Count increasingly recorded with top singers of the day, including Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Billy Eckstine.
As the Count’s fame grew, his and Catherine’s world expanded. The orchestra gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium in 1957, after their first European tour in 1954, and performed at one of the inaugural balls for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. This was also when Count and Catherine Basie operated a nightclub, Count Basie’s Lounge, in New York City, starting around 1957. In 1958, he was first African American musician to win a GRAMMY Award (in fact, he won two that year), and he would win seven more during the next two decades. He was a Downbeat international critics’ poll winner from 1952 to 1956.
Basie recorded for Roulette Records between 1957 and 1962 with producer Teddy Reig and made the first of three tours of Japan in 1963. Throughout the 1960s, the Count Basie Orchestra toured extensively and made numerous television and film appearances and many recordings, including collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The Orchestra also played many new arrangements written by Benny Carter, Chico O’Farrill, Frank Foster, Quincy Jones, Sammy Nestico, Bill Holman, and Eric Dixon.
From 1972 until 1984, Count Basie recorded for Pablo Records, often in small group jam sessions, with musicians including Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald (with whom he frequently toured), Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, Louie Bellson, blues singer Joe Turner, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.
In 1974, one year after the Basies moved permanently to Freeport, Catherine organized a gala fundraiser for a Freeport hospital in honor of the Count’s 70th birthday, inviting Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to be the guest artists with the Count Basie Orchestra. The Count’s 70th was feted again with a “Royal Salute” at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (his was the first African American band to play the Waldorf, in 1957) to benefit the United Negro College Fund and the Catherine and Count Basie Scholarship Fund for the NCCJ.
As a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 1981, the Count was described by President Reagan as "among the handful of musicians that helped change the path of American music in the 30s and 40s.” He received honorary degrees from International University, the Philadelphia Academy of Music, the Berklee College of Music, Montclair State College, Union College, Monmouth College, Dowling College, and the University of Missouri as well as numerous citations and proclamations from local, state, and federal government officials.
Basie persevered through bouts of declining health and took several months off following a heart attack in 1976. His mobility declined in later years, leading to his use of a motorized wheelchair both on the road and at home. Catherine died of a heart attack in 1983 at their home in the Bahamas. Count Basie died the next year of pancreatic cancer in a Florida hospital, shortly after his last performance with the Count Basie Orchestra on April 13th in Burlington, Vermont. Diane Basie died in Florida after suffering a heart attack in 2022.
1. Basie, Count. Good Morning Blues. (Random House: New York, 1985), 259. Walker, Danton. “New York Letter.” The Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger (1934-1969), January 12, 1943 (Page 15 of 34), accessed online November 1, 2022. Washington State Archives; Olympia, Washington; Washington Marriage Records, 1854-2013; Reference Number: kingcoarchmc166491, accessed online November 1, 2022.
The collection is arranged in 10 series and 21 subseries.
Series 1: Count Basie
Subseries 1.1: Performances
Subseries 1.2: Honors and awards
Subseries 1.3: Notated music
Subseries 1.4: Publications and writings
Subseries 1.5: Ephemera and memorabilia
Subseries 1.6: Artwork
Series 2: Catherine Basie
Subseries 2.1: Charitable and civic work
Subseries 2.2: Personal papers
Series 3: Family and friends
Series 4: Correspondence
Subseries 4.1: Correspondence sent and received
Subseries 4.2: Addresses and business cards
Series 5: Scrapbooks
Series 6: Clippings and publications
Subseries 6.1: Clippings
Subseries 6.2: Publications
Series 7: Recordings
Subseries 7.1: Live
Subseries 7.2: Production
Subseries 7.3: Broadcast
Subseries 7.4: Personal
Subseries 7.5: Other artists
Subseries 7.6: Unidentified
Subseries 7.7: Inscribed
Subseries 7.8: Basie published recordings
Subseries 7.9: Moving image
Series 8: Photographic prints and negatives
Series 9: Financial and legal records
Series 10: Artifacts
Original order of the collection was maintained as much as possible, and the series reflect apparent groupings of materials according to how they were boxed when the collection was acquired by the Institute of Jazz Studies in 2018.
See series-level arrangement notes for more information.
This collection includes items that may reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and/or xenophobic perspectives; may be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality; and/or include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, wars/terrorist acts, and natural disasters. These views do not represent the views, opinions, mission, values, and representations of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the Institute of Jazz Studies, and Rutgers University Libraries. They are solely present as an accurate representation of the historical record contained within this collection.
Description of artifacts in Series 10 and subseries 1.6, 4.2, and 6.2 is ongoing.
- Guide to the Count Basie family papers and artifacts
- In Progress
- Finding aid authors include Kehinde Alonge, Jude Duane, Tad Hershorn, Benjamin Houtman, Roxane Orgill, Riain Ross-Hager, and Elizabeth Surles. The collection was arranged and described with assistance from Iliana Bernal, Diane Biunno, Adriana Cuervo, Vincent Pelote, Joy Rosenthal, Loren Schoenberg, and Wayne Winborne.
- November 2022
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, received a project support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State, to process the Count Basie family papers. Conservation and preservation of the Count Basie family papers and artifacts was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Park Service, National Endowment for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Part of the Institute of Jazz Studies Repository
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